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Dandān-Uiliq (meaning “places of houses with ivory”) is ruins belonging to the Buddhist culture zone that once prospered around Khōtan. Famous for its jade since very ancient times, there once prospered a kingdom in the area which was known as Yutian (于闐). Even today, the bustling oasis city of Khōtan is one of the largest along the Silk Road’s Southern Route. The ruins of Dandān-Uiliq are located northeast of the present-day city in an area that was also was once inhabited by people. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear the site was abandoned at some point and in no time, it became completely buried in sands of the Taklamakan Desert. In this way the once prosperous town of a thousand years ago disappeared from people’s memories.
Dandān-Uilliq was first discovered in 1896 by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who is known for his crossing of the Taklamakan desert. Although Hedin understood the archaeological significance of the Dandan-Uilliq site when he discovered the remains of canals, streets lined with trees, and orchards, not being an archaeologist, he decided to leave its excavation to the specialists. He himself simply left records of the site including its whereabouts, under the title “ancient city of the Taklamakan.” Aurel Stein took particular interest in Hedin’s article and set out to see the site for himself.
In the winter of 1900, Stein set his eyes on Dandān-Uiliq for the starting point of his excavations. He began in Khōtan, where he gathered his team and prepared the necessary equipment and goods for his expedition. Upon leaving Khōtan, he first advanced northward along the river, and then changed his direction eastward, heading toward Dandān-Uiliq （Map(1)）. During the day, the team dug wells seeking subterranean water sources, and at night they endured the biting cold, which at times reached as low as minus 20 degrees celsius. Thus the grueling journey continued until finally, the team reached Dandān-Uiliq(2), the site where they were to enjoy immense rewards.
After approximately a month of excavation and survey, the team confirmed the locations of as many as fourteen separateBuddhist temple ruins and monk dwellings(3). From these sites, a number of paintings on wooden boards(4), stucco figures (such as Buddha Seated on Pedastal(5), Seated Buddha(6), and Beings Born Transformationally from Lotus Flower(7)), murals, and manuscripts were found. The team also learned that the Buddhist temple ruins(8) were constructed according to a plan whereby a corridor encircles the cella (or the square center pillar layout(9)), a design created so that worshippers circled the cella with their right shoulders always facing towards the pillar as they worshipped.
Paintings of Dandān-Uiliq Depicting Legends of Khōtan
Among the paintings discovered in Dandān-Uiliq are those based on the famous Khōtan legends such as the “Introduction of the Silkworm,” “the Legend of the Holy Mouse,” and “the Legend of the Dragon Lady.” Such legends appeared in Xuanzang’s famous Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記), and thus are quite well known.
The legend, “Introduction of the Silkworms” tells the story of the daughter of a Chinese noble who was wedded to the king of Khōtan. Although it was strictly forbidden to bring silkworms across the Chinese borders of the time, the princess hid a seed of the mulberry tree along with a silkworm eggs inside her headdress, bringing them with her into Khōtan. Stein, finding the story depicted on a colored illustration painted on a wooden board(10)interpreted the painting in light of this story so that the lady illustrated in the center wearing a headdress was seen as the princess, and that the lady-in-waiting, painted to the right of the princess was pointing at the princess’ headdress to symbolize the legend about the introduction of silkworms to the western region. Silkworm cocoons can also be seen piled in the basket shown between the princess and her maid. In the right side of the painting, another maid as well as a loom for weaving silk is depicted. Although there are different theories on the origins of silk production in Khōtan, we know that not only was silk traded in the markets of Khōtan but it was also produced in the city as well.
The second legend seen depicted in art found in Dandān-Uiliq is the Legend of the Sacred Rats” which tells the story of how the desert mice saved the city of Khōtan when it was under siege by the Xiongnu (匈奴). On one of the paintings on wooden boards(11) found at the site we find a painting of a man with the head of a rat. The man wears a crown and sits between two attendants. The figure most likely is the deified depiction of the rats of the legend.
The third legend, known as the “Legend of the Dragon Lady” is about a “Dragon Lady” who lived in a river to the east of Khōtan who demanded that the king of Khōtan provide her with a husband. The legend goes that in answer to her demand, a minister was sent to her on a white horse to become her husband. The Mural in the Cella(12) of shrine ruin D. II shows a woman bathing in a square pond with floating water lilies. In front of the pond stands a horse and it is thought that the painting most likely is associated with the legend. Although Stein had hoped to cut the mural out from the cave wall to send it to Britain for preservation, he was unable to carry this out because the stucco wall was too fragile.
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